Trouble for Women in “Manly” Jobs: Sexual Harassment and Discrimination

Women have always wanted access to blue-collar jobs but have not always been able to get it. As Susan Chira, writing for the New York Times, notes, blue-collar jobs generally pay higher wages and have been a pathway to the middle class. Women have wanted those higher-paying jobs for the same reasons that men want them—they have families to support, often as single parents. Chira reminds us that women only got access to higher-paying jobs after 1964, when Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forced open certain industries previously closed to women, including work in factories, shipyards, mines, and construction sites. Unfortunately, the sexual harassment that women encountered when they entered these fields still endures today. In a different article, Chira reports that sexual harassment remains endemic in many blue-collar professions because it was woven into the manufacturing sector as it evolved during the industrial revolution. For example, as women came from farms into the textile mills, “men reserved the highest-status, highest-paying jobs” for themselves. Chira explains that sexual harassment reflects male hostility to women who try to take “men’s jobs” because of this original sense of entitlement. Because society continues to see some jobs as for men only, many blue-collar professions remain male dominated, and studies show that “sexual harassment is more regular and severe in traditionally male occupations.” The sexual harassment that women still endure remains dangerous. For example:

  • A woman on a repair crew was deliberately stranded on top of a two-hundred-foot wind turbine by her male coworkers after enduring months of lewd taunts.
  • Men dropped tools on female coworkers or deliberately turned on electrical power when women began working on power lines.
  • One gold miner, Hanna Hurst, described her harassment at work as rougher than any she endured serving in the military in Iraq.
  • Women in construction are blacklisted and become unemployable if they report sexual harassment.
In May, 2018, Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times reported that two high-ranking women in the northern Virginia Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department filed federal civil rights charges. When they opposed a long pattern of sexual discrimination and harassment in the department, one was denied jobs and a promotion and the other was asked to leave the department. Tavernise reports that “women have sued [this] department six times for sex discrimination since 2005, and in most of those cases either settled or won.” But nothing changed because of a lack of support for change from senior leadership, so the two senior women decided to take their case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at the federal level, so “they can’t ignore us anymore.” Chira writes that, not surprisingly, an analysis of employment from 2000 to 2016 shows female representation in blue-collar industries has shrunk by as much as 10 percent. Tavernise reports that the percentage of female firefighters has dropped from 5.3 percent in 2007 to 3.5 percent in 2017. Tavernise quotes Marc Bendick, an economic researcher who conducted a national study of female firefighters, as saying, “It wasn’t that the women couldn’t do the jobs, or didn’t want the jobs. It was what the departments were doing to them” that pushed them out of the profession. What will finally bring change? Chira cites several scholars who argue that only a fundamental reconstruction of organizations to be less hierarchical and a reexamination of pay scales for men’s and women’s work will result in lasting change. Some small successes among firefighters in Kansas City, Missouri, and female miners in Wyoming occurred when the jobs were redefined away from the traditional hyperbolic masculine image to a more collaborative one, giving hope that we will figure this out one day, if the will is there to do so.   Photo courtesy of Eric Kilby (CC BY-SA 2.0)]]>

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